"Have a drink on Columbia Records. Let's get into Elvis," shouted the Columbia promotion man as he passed out little silver discs good for free booze. The punters at Bogarts, the oh-so-trendy rock club in Cincinnati, were anxious. Elvis Costello was late, and he had a lot to live up to.
An hour before, Costello sat in the restaurant at Bogarts picking at cold food, while fans screwed their necks to get a glimpse at his Arnold Stang visage. So this is the next big thing, huh? A skinny runt in an iridescent suit wearing Coke-bottle glasses and chatting with fans like a normal human being? Costello was clearly going to have to prove his worth.
Plugging his old-fashioned Fender guitar into a Peavy amp, Costello, looking like Buddy Holly on a particularly bad night, squinted at the crowd and launched into "Welcome to the Working Week," the lead cut of his debut album: "I know it don't thrill you, hope it don't kill you," an apropos greeting to the nine-to-fivers populating the club on another Monday night.
Then the unheard of:
No stage patter, no "Hello Cincy," just a cursory nod and right into the next song, an unrecorded gem. Alternating new tunes and songs from the LP, Costello played like a frog turned into a prince by the kiss of rock and roll. Backed by a three piece group of apparent refugees from the psychedelic '60s, Costello poured out lean, tough lyrics ("I don't want to be your lover,'' he said in one new song, "I just want to be your victim.") over stripped-to-the-bones rock and roll.
The new songs are even better than the tunes from the first LP, a record that made more critics 10 best lists than any other released last year. "Stranger in the House" sounds like Rick Nelson with a dreadful case of paranoia, and "Radio, Radio" is an instant anthem, direct-speak to anyone who has ever stayed up past dawn, twisting the knobs to catch the perfect song and moment.
He returned hesitantly for an encore, admonishing the crowd to consider their friends standing outside in the bitter cold waiting for the second show before demanding more music.
"It was like being at the Cavern," said a companion as we left, alluding to the basement club where the Beatles emerged. I'm not sure about that, but it was certainly the best rock I'd enjoyed since 1974 when I saw Springsteen at a small theater in St. Louis.
Elvis Costello is the realest, most exciting rock performer of the seventies. And you might as well come to terms with him now. Costello's pose as the angry, mistreated twerp has him keeping a list of everyone who did him damage along the way. It's one list you don't want to be on.